The Rise and Fall of Third Basemen

Offense is down around baseball, but the hot corner is suffering more than most. Consider this factoid, discovered in the process of deciding whether or not the Cubs should pick up the $16 million option on Aramis Ramirez: Shortstops are hitting .259/.312/.369 so far this year — and third basemen aren’t much better (.257/.317/.382). What gives?

It’s complicated: Since 2007, offense — as measured by wOBA — is down 5%, and that’s part of the reason why the average OPS at third has gone from more than .800 in 2006 to less than .700 in 2011. But even that simple statement seems to suggest that the drop has been worse than average at third. Is that true? Let’s take a look at the average wOBA of qualified third basemen since 2001, compared to the league wOBA.

Two things emerge from this chart. One is that the decline might have something to do with the league-wide decline, but that phenomenon doesn’t completely explain the situation. Third basemen peaked higher than the league did, for one. The other thing that emerges is that third basemen are actually better this year — compared to last — when looked at as a percentage of leaguewide wOBA. Qualified batters at the position have been good for a wOBA about 6.5% better than league average this year. That was 4.5% last year and 7.9% in 2008 — which is this decade’s peak year for them, as a group.

The graph seems to suggest that this is a cyclical thing. Just as third basemen had a tough time in 2002 and 2003, they’re currently in the middle of a mini-valley. And when seen in comparison with the rest of the majors, they’re doing about the same this year as they did in 2006, when they were 6.2% better than the league average.

But there is something going on here, nonetheless. Using qualified batters made the position look better in this graph by taking out all the injury replacements that contributed to the shortstop-like batting line with which we began. This year will see the fewest qualified batters at the position in the decade. Only 15 third basemen will accrue 3.1 plate appearances per team game this year. That’ll be only the second time in the decade that fewer than 20 have accomplished the feat (18 in 2008). Injuries to Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Beltre could further decimate that number in coming weeks.

Is the position aging? Injuries will keep Pablo Sandoval, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Zimmerman, David Freese, Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, David Wright and Casey Blake from qualifying this year. Although not all of these names are geriatric, none is a young up-and-comer. The average age at the position (minimum 50 games with third base as the primary position) is currently the highest it’s been all decade. At 30.12 years old this year, only 2009 (30.01) found the average third baseman more than 30 years old (although 2010 was close at 29.93). The youngest (28.79) of the decade was in 2004, but most years the position would have been rounded to 29 years old. These aren’t the biggest leaps in age, but the trend is there — especially when seen in opposition to first basemen, who went from 31.22 to 29.47 years old during the same time.

So where are the prospects at the hot corner? The recent crop hasn’t quite worked out: Ian Stewart and Pedro Alvarez have contact problems that threaten to derail their careers. Mike Moustakas hasn’t had the same problems, but that isn’t to say that he hasn’t had any problems. Josh Bell looks like a bust. Mat Gamel and Chris Davis don’t have the fielding skills to stay at the position, and it’s unclear whether they’d be much of an offensive help. Lonnie Chisenhall is more serviceable than elite with the bat. Brett Lawrie should help, but he’s one player.

Not so long ago, third base had a nice collection of veterans to mix in with yesteryear’s exciting young prospects in Zimmerman, Evan Longoria and David Wright. That led to a mid-decade boom at the position. Now, after a few injuries, retirements and prospect flame outs, the position is in a bust cycle. But that means a boom has to come sometime. Maybe all that third base needs is a few adjustments from Moustakas, a little development from Lawrie, and a rennaissance from the mid-career veterans in order to find its former glory.

Thanks to Jeff Zimmermann for help crunching some of the numbers in this piece.




Print This Post



Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


33 Responses to “The Rise and Fall of Third Basemen”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
  1. JD says:

    Could it be that teams are realizing that 3B is not just “1B on the left side of the infield,” and you can’t put a masher who can’t field over there without costing the team a ton of runs defensively? As such, teams are sacrificing some offense for better defensive players. Perhaps gone are the days of Russell Branyan-types playing lots of third base.

    Or it could just be that some of the best 3Bs in baseball have missed time with injuries, and the guys replacing them aren’t so good at hitting.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • CircleChange11 says:

      Exactly what I was thinking.

      3B is too demanding of a defensive position for a “right-handed 1B to play”.

      It’s demanding in terms of skills required, but also (and perhaps more importantly) it’s higher risk of injury.

      Really good hitting 3Bs often end up as 1B. Guys don’t often get moved TO 3B.

      I think as defensive metrics become more accurate and defense is valued more that shortstops with quickness that lack the range to play MLB shortstop will be moved to 3B (not 2B as they traditionally are).

      Look at how few guys start at 3B and stick at 3B. They either get moved to 1B or a corner OF spot.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • DCN says:

        Or to DH – Edgar Martinez, Jim Thome, Paul Molitor, Aubrey Huff (for some time).

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • notsellingjeans says:

        Honest question: Why is 3b a higher injury risk than first? Is it merely because of the additional throws, you’re saying?

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • shthar says:

        And what’s the weather like in colorado Mr. Kouzmanoff?

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • joser says:

        3B is presumed to be a higher injury risk because there are more RH than LH hitters, and when RH hitters pull line drives they tend to go through the space occupied by the third baseman. This means more quick-reaction plays, and that means more chance to pull or twist something (not to mention the risk of getting hit by the ball — just ask Adrian Beltre about this.)

        The first-baseman may be involved in almost every play, but most of those are throws to him by his own team, and thus pose relatively little injury risk. In contrast, the 3B sees more hit balls he has to field, and those pose greater risk. See the breakdown here.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • notsellingjeans says:

        Great link joser, thank you. I hadn’t read any John Walsh stuff in a long time and that was awesome. Lots for me to chew on.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. domingoes says:

    Without doing a damn thing to research this, I would expect this type of situation is true for almost every position at one time or another, with the corner outfield and DH being a bit more stable.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Matt says:

    “Although not all of these names are geriatric, none of them is a young up-and-comer anymore.”

    Sandoval might have up and come already, but he’s very much still young. In fact, he’s younger than Ian Stewart, Mat Gamel, and Chris Davis, and only 3 months older than Josh Bell (and not much older than that compared to Pedro Alvarez), all guys you put in your replenishing/young up and coming section.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • John C. says:

      And Ryan Zimmerman is only 26; I’m not sure what constitutes an “up-and-comer” in this analysis, but he’s still a couple of years short of what should be his peak seasons (28-32).

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Kyle says:

      also itsnt it only Freese’s 2nd year in the majors?

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Bronnt says:

        Hard to describe Freese as a “young up and comer” when he’s only four months younger than David Wright.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Antonio Bananas says:

        based on a study using OPS, peak is 27. Some variance obviously, but the trend was pretty much the same for every level of player. At 26, you’re not likely to get much better. Freese at 29 isn’t young. Since he’s an oft-injured late bloomer, it’s probably equally as likely he’s never as good again as he was last year as it is likely he improves.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Eno Sarris says:

      I painted with a too broad a brush on the specific names, perhaps. That was more off-the-cuff than the numbers in the piece. I think the general picture holds: the position is a little older than it was early in the 2000s, and that age lead to some injuries and some poor replacements this year.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Corey says:

    What would be the marginal effect of Jose Bautista moving back to third base. I’m not sure how big a scale we’re talking about, this might all just be random noise. What are the standard errors of the woba’s for example? Those two observations might shed a little more light on how big a decline there’s actually been at third base (if there actually is a decline).

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. gdc says:

    If we think of individual names, having Michael Young at DH instead of 3B also drops the overall stats a bit. Maybe not as much as Chone Figgins and Brandon Inge playing 3B though.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • joser says:

      Figgins hasn’t played enough to be qualified at 3B (~680 innings, or less than 80 games), so he doesn’t even show up in some of these numbers.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Eno Sarris says:

        50 games per year, and 40 games this year to reflect the fact that we aren’t done with the season. Used that number to try and get ‘starters’ at the position.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Telo says:

    Yea, I’m not really seeing anything here. There a ton of great third base options.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. Hurtlocker says:

    Pablo Sandoval is only 25?? I think that qualifies as a young player and he can really hit when he’s healthy.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. brendan says:

    how about chase headley as a promising young 3B? .351wOBA, 129 wRC+ this year — high BABIP tho.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. Pat (Boston) says:

    Eno – Is the League wOBA only qualified hitters or is all hitters? If it’s all hitters, we’d have a bit a bias here albeit a potentially consistent bias.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Eno Sarris says:

      Yes you are right. League wOBA is all, 3B is qualified. But I was trying to talk about ‘starters’ and I tried not to emphasize the chart too much except to show that it looks cyclical. Perhaps I should have just used qualifed league wOBA.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. dtro says:

    “Injuries will keep Pablo Sandoval, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Zimmerman, David Freese, Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, David Wright and Casey Blake from qualifying this year.”

    That seems like your main culprit this year. Those guys can all still hit, but haven’t been healthy.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. flyingelbowsmash says:

    I think a part of it, and I don’t know exactly why, but it isn’t a popular position to play anymore. As I have watched my son go through little league and now into high school, no one wanted to play third. When I was a kid it was THE position to play, but in the 70′s and 80′s there were so many third basemen to look up to with Schmidt, Brett, et al.
    Perhaps one reason is more bigger, hitter types are playing short and second when they would have been regulated to third base in the past. Short stop has the draw to the top players now like third did when I was growing up.
    Just a thought and observation.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. Bookbook says:

    Good point, dtro. But, Chipper, Rolen, and Blake are legitimately at the end of the line, or near it. and A-Rod’s an injury prone 36.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>